The Un-opposable Thumb

As much as I hate to say it, but I do have to bore you with yet another tale of the cuts and bruises associated with living off the beaten tracks of civilized comfort. To all the bearers of strong motherly instincts who follow our adventures with the caring spirit of the great mama of all men I must say at once not to worry. It will neither be as dramatic nor as serious as the two and a half months ordeal with the scratch on my shin described in the Hospital Holiday. It will however lift those of you able and willing to overcome the shackles of treaded reasoning aloft, up to an altitude sufficient for seeing the essence of human existence laid out below you like an open book of third grade simplicity, or maybe like a mantic carpet depicting the secrets of our suffering souls with very obvious and walkable ornamentation. But beware! Up there in the thin air of divine detachment you will run into the imminent danger of an instant and acid understanding of the why and what of our precarious existence in this garden of Eden called planet Earth. But I’m clearly getting ahead of myself.

Once we all have finally managed to heed the persistent call of our parents or other legal guardians to stop sucking our thumbs, most of us pay little or no attention thereafter to this body part of quite spectacular evolutionary achievement that sets us apart and puts us in control of most other living creatures on Earth. Except of course if you’re some wireframe spectacled scientist busy with deciphering the evolutionary implications of linear thinking, trying to piece together the tiny threads of sense we’re able to make from specs of petrified evidence spread out over eons of time in sediment layers underneath our walking feet. It is obviously not our thumbs’ capability of substituting the succulent maternal mammary glands this methodical thinker is interested in. He’s after the much greater and much more important quest of explaining the considerable size of the human brain. He looks in awe at the magnificent dexterity of our opposable thumbs, which allow us to grab a delicate egg without crushing it, to lead a scalpel to a precise incision into the live muscles of our heart, to thread a tiny needle and weave a silken shroud with it, to grab a pencil and write one more variation of the eternal song of love, to lead the bow of a violin precisely over the tensioned strings and make the most gentle weeping sound, to hang on a vine in a damp cloud forest and swing through the lower canopy to the next tree without touching the boggy ground, to pick our nose bored and hoping for change, to grip the fleeting hand of a bride and convince her to heed the call of procreation, to throw a spear at a furious beast and transform it into a tasty stew, to fumble the buttons of the latest smart phone and double the value of our already considerable portfolio; the list truly goes on and on and almost all of our activities in some way or another depend on the fact that our thumbs can rotate around their longitudinal axis almost 180˚ and then meet the other four fingers from the opposite side. It is no wonder therefore that the tunnel vision of our evolutionary biologist comes to the in his eyes incredibly brilliant conclusion that the complex brain power needed to manipulate such a versatile digit is the fundamental reason behind our brain’s amazing development. In his eyes the control circuitry for this delicate machinery overshadows all other just as amazing feats the human brain has been coaxed into achieving by the brutal and grinding demands of the varying environments this curious race of ours has had to call home over the long and winding course of our history. The simple facts that some birds have two opposable digit on their lower limbs, and that most monkeys call two opposable thumbs their own not only on their hands but also on their feet and therefore both those denizens of the inferior ranks of the animal kingdom should outsize our big heads, clearly seems to escape the monorail of this controlled and repeatable scientific experiment.

I mentioned beforehand the nasty spines and sharp edges that decorate many of the edible inhabitants of the coral reefs and sandy bottoms of our present home turf in the protected lagoon of Tongareva. Most of the local fishermen have a single woolen glove somewhere lying around on the bottom of their boats for the simple purpose of grabbing those thorny fishes while picking the hook out of their snouts. Unfortunately Alunita is not equipped with such efficiency and to make matters worse the long nose pliers in the tackle box have gotten so stiff from the rust that besets anything ironclad when living on the sea, that the little spring that is supposed to open them after pressing them shut is hopelessly overwhelmed to the point of being useless. If you don’t have both hands available to pry them open, the only way to release their grip is by hooking one of the handles onto something and then pull the other towards you. Not exactly a nice thing to have to do when you are in a hurry!

We have finally found a coral head close enough to Aluna that renders two or three fishes for diner every day with a certain consistency. It took some learning and quite many a day with an empty bucket coming home to dry turkey jerky diner made from stores bought back in Hawai’i, progressing dangerously fast towards their expiration date. Here we are now floating over a dark green extrusion from the light blue sandy sea bottom in Alunita, which in turn hangs from the grapnel anchor hook set on the windward side of it. Both our hand lines are over the sides. These are lengths of nylon fishing line on any kind of reel, weighted down at the working end with a piece of coral rock, selected from the many others on the beach for the little holes they sport through which the line is lead and knotted. After an additional foot or two of line the stainless steel fish hock is baited with centimeter-sized morsels of cut up young ballyhoos. These three to four inch long halfbeaks are skinny, their body shaped like a fat needle, shining metallic blue and aptly named because their lower jaw protrudes forwards a good inch more than the upper one and ends in a sharp point. They swim in big schools around Aluna during the afternoon, usually quite peacefully but sometimes towards the later part of the day the frenzy is on and they are chased around by the fast and furious Trevalies, so much so that they jump out of the water in drones in a desperate attempts to escape their bigger cousins up the ferocious food chain. Standing proud and fortunate even further up the food chain a little earlier I had stood on Aluna’s bow with a scoop net on a long bamboo stick and when just quick enough had managed to catch one or two with a rapid flick of the net. They’re excellent bait, too good in fact, so tasty the sharks love it too and we have lost quite a good number of hooks to those. They tear violently at the line when caught until it breaks. Many times we have chuckled imagining the grin of those sharks with many metal hooks strung to its lips magically transplanted on a black leather and silver chain clad gothic punk treading the wacko streets of San Francisco.

All of a sudden there’s the rewarding nibbling and pulling on my line and I hoist it up as quickly as I can. A flash of white is at the end of the line and a yellow green shape in hot pursuit of it. I manage to pull the white flash out of the water soon enough to be mine and not of the sharp toothed ancient creature. It’s a beautiful snapper jerking around in the bucket between my feet. Rose-colored scales, yellow pectoral fins, the redness intensifies along the flanks towards the front of the head and the dorsal fin is the deepest blood red you can imagine, a delicate membrane strung between a series of erect dark needle-sharp spines. Here’s where the long nose pliers’ service would be most needed. The fish is still dangling on the line and if you are nimble enough you can grab the hook inside its mouth with the tip of the pliers and fling it out by twisting your hand quickly. This hook though is set deep down in the mouth and those rusty pliers make the operation cumbersome and outright impossible. I, with my very own version of an oversized brain, have the brilliant idea of grabbing the fish with my left hand, to facilitate the extraction with the unsuited utensil. The best way to grip a slippery fish is by grabbing it just behind the gill flaps, hard enough for your finger and thumb tips to slide into the gill cavity for a firm hold. The edge of the gill flap is now hugging my fingers and it feels a bit too sharp for comfort. The warning is ignored by my civilized brain and my curious attention is sucked away by an angry discharge of the creatures bowels into the bucket as soon as I enter its by now wide open mouth with the rusty piers for a one time chance to grab a hold of the hook. Nature many times is a web of warnings when it comes to its notorious maxim of eat or be eaten. Signs to stay away most of the times precede an outright attack or aggression. Those who do not understand those subtle messages are clearly in line for being eaten, or if  a bit more lucky just bruised enough to react a little better next time. That dirty squirt of anger into the bucket, equivalent to a load of shit in our own pants, should have been just that for me, and the price for my ignorance is waiting around the corner. The next wiggle of the hook in the sensitive tissue of the fishes innards triggers an explosive release of kinetic energy and the little beast shakes its body with such vehemence that it wrings itself free from my grip, but not before the razor edge of its gill flap slashes into the tip of my left thumb, deep enough to sever some nerve ends. Those will now cry mercy for a couple days whenever the tip of my thumb comes into contact with anything hard.

I’m now left with a little experiment of evolutionary biology of my own. Only one opposable thumb remains usable on my right hand, while the one on my left is out of commission. It hits me soon enough, back on Aluna, when trying to scale and gut the fish with only nine digits, quite a tricky and slippery task with all ten at your disposal. It continues to bang on the doors of my reasoning whenever I have to grab something, manipulate, twist, turn, push or pull with my left hand. Try to tie a knot without using you’re your left thumb, try to pick your nose, open a can, peel a potato, crack a nut, and make it a coconut, will you! I would like to invite you to accompany me in this experiment for only one day. Forbid yourself the use of your left thumb for a day, and I’m sure the experience will make you a co-conspirator of our scientist friend’s exaggerated emphasis of the opposable thumb. Sure you can grab on to a loaf of bread with only your four fingers, but you better be careful when cutting that slice for the morning toast. You might just cut that un-opposable thumb of yours off in a bloody mess! At the end of the day though, so much at least is clear for me at this time, you will have to notice that your brain did not diminish in size due to the loss of one of your opposable thumbs!

Like the quantum leap in this strangely mystical way of doing physics with the same name, my experience with reason and logic is that it cannot, most of the time that is, reach a practicable solution by creeping steadily along established tracks. It has to jump blindly, akin to a leap of faith without the comfort of believing, through the void of senselessness. It must hop helplessly over huge puddles of rancid randomness. Only when it can catapult itself completely across vast tracts of clumsy craziness can it, sometimes, find the exit to the labyrinth of thought. It then looks in complete awe at the ease and simplicity of the solutions to our most persistent problems laid out before it. What I mean to say in less boisterous terms, is that I need to confess that I have no cleverly designed connection, no fool- nor bulletproof rational, not even the hint of a plausible explanation for having a strong personal preference for a different evolutionary model of causality describing the where from and the where to of our hyper inflated cranium cavity. I read about it in an essay by some emerging scientific journalist who was portraying a whale researcher, by some strange coincidence also wireframe bespectacled, on the mighty Big Island of Hawai’i.

He apparently spent his days offshore from the steaming lava fields, zipping with his outboard powered Zodiac down into wave troughs of substantial negative amplitude and up their corresponding crests to place floating hydrophones in the most unexpected locations on the ocean surface. His quite obviously sleep-deprived nights in turn saw him listening to recorded whale songs over a super high fidelity sound system. He was intrigued by the musical manifestations of a yet bigger brain than ours, at least on an absolute scale, in charge of moving muscle, sinew and bones literally by the tons. His enlightened mind however must have been nimble enough to realize that although apparently lured away from the solidly enshrined center at the core of his simple self, his thinking and explaining could never describe anything beyond the vast realm of his perception and ultimately had to depict what the mirror of the outside reality reflected of himself. By immersing himself acoustically in the leviathan’s mythological musicality and after, of course, correcting the brain size mystery for its obvious proportionality, he came to the conclusion that our oversized grey-mattered cortex does not come from our self-righteous placement at the crown of creation, but happens to be entrusted and so heavily burdened with cleverly correcting a pretty serious defect. His explanation, like any good and practical advise, is as simple as you can have it: Our brain is so exuberantly big, our mind so freightingly complex and our thinking so desperately astray because… because we’ve learned and have become masters of the art of lying! Animals trick and trap each other all the time and most of the means of establishing picking orders amongst critters involves a certain distortion of reality, his reasoning goes, but we humans are the only creatures that have thrived on making deception amongst ourselves our very essence. It is by no means the lying that drove the inflation of our brain tissue. Lying is a relatively easy task, the little imagination and the ability to detach yourself from what there is real and reachable around you is quite easily learned. The spreading of this treacherous capacity amongst our race was probably more like the epidemic devastation of an infectious disease, pulled downhill like an avalanche by the steady gravy train of gravity. Relieved from the burden of truth, the trickery easily contaminated the entire network of human relations. The legs of lies are short, I was told as soon as I had my first bout of infection when growing up to become a lying human myself. In order for communities to function and make sense of each other, it has quite obviously become necessary to develop efficient means of discerning the lies from the truth, and it is the enormous complexity of this task that made our network of neurons spin out into the frenzy of an imperialist expansion, pushing outward on the bony lobes of our skulls until arriving at the persistent feeling of lightheadedness of modern man’s gait.

This wonderfully whacky whale wizard is clearly my buddy. His refined logic knows the art of treading the thread for the obvious without falling into the willing hands of the cleverly banal. There can be hardly any more obvious truth out there than our willingness to resort to lying whenever we’re up against some problem. The amount of time we spend asking ourselves if such and such is telling us the truth, the fact that a good 99% of what our elected and self-declared leaders tell us is intentionally distorted spin, that eternal nagging sensation where I know I can’t trust any of my fellow brothers, the horrific discrepancy between what we say with our words and what we do with our deeds, the amazing portion of our mental activity spent on how things should be and the little we care to understand what actually is, the immense fear we all have of showing who we really are and the gargantuan effort we put forth towards improving our appearance, it all sounds so characteristically human and speaks clearly of the comfort we have found in the ease of making things up. Seriously, no other animal can be accused of such systematic offense to common sense!

Finding ourselves now at the end of an evolutionary road where we proudly promenade this giant, heavy organ around with us on our thicker and thicker necks wherever we stroll, designed intelligently and, thanks to our whale watching brother from lava land, quite obviously for discerning the truth from lies, doesn’t it make sense to let it roam freely and allow it to sharpen its claws to perfection? Why let the masters of trickery rise like rancid cream to the top of the ranks in our communities and societies? Make the dismantling of all lies your most precious talent. Nurture it in yourself and in everybody within your reach! Care only for what is left once the thick veil of pretentions has lifted, support only what has been cleansed by thorough doubt and suspicion, lend yourself only and exclusively to the treacherous and tireless pursuit of truth, stay as close as you can to whatever smells real, buy nothing you don’t absolutely need, let yourself drift away from what you have, become truly what you are, and above all, never ever believe anything at all! Should you be willing and able to navigate through this onslaught of moral imperatives and get within arms reach of the fleeting truth, maybe you might find yet another handy use of your opposable thumb. You could use it to grab a hold more firmly of one little piece of this glowing ember, to call it your own just a wee bit longer, extending by a slither its transitory existence within the realm of your awareness, just long enough to share it with all of us, your brothers and sisters who are equally thirsting for the elixir of the pure and honest truth. Then we can all be silent witnesses when soon enough the next piece of premeditated lying will wrench the useless junk of wisdom out of your elaborate grip and goes on to crucify it without mercy in the public eye of the beholder.

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